Ten days – that was all the time that was needed for China’s 25,000-square-metre Huoshenshan Hospital to be constructed in Wuhan at the end of January last year.
Built using prefabricated materials and modular construction, the hospital boasted a 1,000-bed capacity, and was designed specifically for infection control in response to the then-burgeoning COVID-19 cases in the country.
Barely six days after the completion of the Huoshenshan Hospital, a second 1,600-bed facility – the Leishenshan hospital – was opened in a neighbouring district, after just 12 days of construction.
The two hospitals, which were both closed in April last year following the stabilisation of COVID-19 cases in Wuhan, played key roles in helping the city manage the pandemic, although they remain on standby in the event of a resurgence of infections.
The success of both facilities in helping Wuhan battle the pandemic has not gone unnoticed, and Dr Koh Hau-Tek, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at Jiahui Health in China, foresees that the concept of such modular hospitals could be a mainstay in the healthcare industry moving forward.
“Modular hospitals were not thought about much before (the pandemic), but now, there is a focus on building the capabilities of such facilities,” Dr Koh said. “There are also already some foreign companies that are looking at constructing such modular hospitals outside of China.
“Modular hospitals are suitable for countries who are not willing to put in the resources to build hospitals just for the purpose of infection control. So, I think there should be demand for that, although it also depends on the respective country’s Ministry of Health to do their assessment of cost benefits.”
Benefits of modular hospitals
There are several advantages that modular hospitals have over their traditional counterparts. The first benefit of modular hospitals is its flexibility, which allows it to be reconfigured according to the current needs of the time.
“Traditional hospitals are huge structures, tied to the ground and immovable, and cannot be adjusted,” said Dr Koh.
“Modular hospitals, however, can be aligned in different manners. For example, during peace time, you can configure it to a general hospital setup, or you can change its setting to have more operating theatres, or turn it into cardiology hospital.
“But when infection control becomes the priority, you can reconfigure the hospital accordingly as well, like what was done (with the Huoshenshan and Leishenshan hospitals) to combat the pandemic. And so, you can have different types of hospitals to suit whatever is needed at the moment.”
The speed at which modular hospitals can be constructed and reconfigured is also another advantage that sets it apart from traditional hospitals.
A study by McKinsey’s in 2019 showed that modular projects can accelerate construction by up to 50 percent – this allows large scale medical facilities to be set up within a very short period of time.
“Modular hospitals are much easier to deploy when you need a medical facility set up very quickly somewhere,” said Dr Koh. “You can build a hospital within a month, or as the examples of the Huoshenshan and Leishenshan hospitals proved, in a matter of days.
“And when you’re battling a pandemic, like that of COVID-19, the speed in which you can construct an additional hospital becomes especially critical.”
Another benefit of modular hospitals is its cost-effectiveness, with the same McKinsey study highlighting that it could cut costs by up to 20 percent.
For example, constructing a traditional hospital in New York can cost as high as US$1,200 per square foot. A modular hospital in the city, however, would cost on average around US$500 to US$600 per square foot instead.
Given the overall value that modular hospitals provide, Dr Koh believes they will play a key role in the healthcare industry in future.
“I think it’s important that people understand modular hospitals and study it in detail,” he said. “It’s cost-effective, flexible, and can be used to combat not just COVID-19, but also any future pandemics that may come our way. So, we should really be changing the way we think about how medical facilities set up their operations and processes in future.”
Remote surgery – the future of healthcare?
Another trend that Dr Koh expects could transform the healthcare industry in the near future is the advent of remote surgeries, especially with the introduction of 5G.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has highlighted how remote robotic surgeries could fit in the healthcare system of the future.
“We do think there will be demand for remote robotic surgery because of the travel restrictions put in place due to the pandemic,” explained Dr Koh. “Even when travel restrictions are lifted, there will still be people who not fit or keen to travel out of the country for surgery.
“So, especially for medical tourism hubs like Singapore and Bangkok, remote robotic surgeries will allow them to maintain a certain number of patient volume from outside the country.”
Dr Koh, however, emphasised that there were certain conditions that had to be fulfilled in order for remote surgeries to work effectively.
He elaborated: “It has to be a collaboration between two medical facilities with advanced capabilities. On the patient’s end, there must be an operating surgeon standing by to step in if required.
“The selection of partner institutions is very important, because if they are not capable of handling post-op patients, or the complications arising from the surgery, then they shouldn’t be offering the service. Safety is still of paramount importance.
“The cost benefit analysis also needs to be done properly before a hospital embarks on this initiative, and there must be a certain synergy between the two partnering institutions from a commercial standpoint as well.”
Dr Koh is hopeful that Jiahui Health will be able to begin performing remote surgeries sooner rather than later.
“We are in the process of building up the team at this point in time,” said Dr Koh. “We know that 5G here works pretty well, and we have access to quite a few robotics surgeons.
“But for the purpose of remote surgeries, we still have to get certain procurements in. We also have to ensure that our market research is fully updated in view of COVID-19.
“For now, though, our resources are mostly dedicated into pandemic control at this point of time. But in terms of clinical capabilities for remote surgeries, we already have them, so hopefully we will be able to offer that service sometime in the future.”